Les gens qui ne rient jamais ne sont pas des gens sérieux

Be who you are and say what you mean, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How to miss the night train from Prague, made easy

The last meeting surrounding the last day of the Important International Conference that had been preoccupying the time of many many people came to an end, as even Important Events tend to do. The whistlestop tour of the beautiful city over, I went back to the hotel to collect my luggage and get myself to the night train to Warsaw.

I set out from the hotel, wheelie suitcase pulled behind me, in the direction I was fairly sure I'd find the tram. Sure enough, there was the tram stop, and the number 22 was approaching slowly down the road. I had so much time, it seemed silly to go straight to the station, but then again, I could stock up on some rations for the journey, and grab a bite to eat along the way.

The tram driver stopped unhelpfully far down the stop, so I walked fast to make sure he knew I was headed his way. As I lifted my suitcase onto the tram, a man sitting in the second row looked at me and my case, and slowly stretched out a hand, pointing to a large red sign hanging over the place that usually shows the destination. I nodded and smiled my appreciation, then set about trying to figure out what the hell the sign said. There were four words. Four Czech words. None were close enough to Polish to be helpful, and as we set off along the track, I decided it must mean it was not going as far as usual, naming the stop it would end. I'm not altogether sure why I came to this decision, and I still have no idea what the sign actually said, but the most helpful comment at that stage would have been TURN BACK NOW! You have NO idea what awaits you. Benefit of hindsight huh. There was no such sign. Just the incomprehensible Czech one.

The tram tracks split, and we went the wrong way. Hmm, I thought. I think I'd better get off this tram. We'd only gone 3 of the 5 stops I was supposed to go before changing trams, but I knew the other tracks were parallel so I'd just walk down here... no maybe down here... and find them right away, get on a tram going the route it is supposed to, and be right back on track.

I pulled the suitcase, noting the annoying noise the wheels were creating, and kept walking. I passed street after street and failed to come across any more tram tracks. Oh well, I thought. I'm basically heading for the centre and that must be this way. This road seems to lead downhill so it'll probably end up at the river, then I'll know where I am and I can check the best route to the station. Sweet. I set off down the street, which got ominously quiet, but then a man passed me and I saw the bent figure of an old lady walking very slowly ahead of me. As I came up behind her, the old lady made way for me and my noisy case, smiling briefly, then halting in her tracks and spouting a whole load of Czech. I made an apologetic face and said I didn't speak Czech. For some reason I said this in Polish, although I'm sure the message would have been just as clear in any other language. Still, she said 'aah' and shook her head sadly, saying in Czech what I assumed to mean 'you don't speak Czech.' I should have learned that phrase from her for the next time.

At the end of the road was a crossing, and I chose the route past the antique car showroom and towards promising twisty cobbled streets, one of which, I was sure, would lead to the river. I turned down the second one, noting the dog walkers and joggers. Good indicators for rivers, I thought.

Or parks, was my next reflection, as I came round the corner and saw the park gates. Before I got there though, a jogger jogged his way over to me and started asking me about 'autobusy'. That much I understood. Sorry, I said, again in Polish. I don't speak Czech. He said 'oh right,' or something of the sort, and jogged off up the hill. Why people do this when they see me I don't know, but my very first day in Warsaw was the same. I got stopped by old ladies, young ladies, old men, young men, even [Polish-speaking] tourists had something to ask me that day. I seemed to be wearing the same Questions? Just ask me! sign on my forehead. This time in Czech.

Entering the park, I saw a map. I like a good map. Of course I had one in my bag, but it only covered the very centre, and I'd lent someone else the more comprehensive one we'd got in our conference packs. I looked for and found the river on the map and decided to follow the most direct path around the park. I still had an hour an a half before the train, but I decide there was no point in taking too much of a detour. Ha.

The sight of me, slightly bedraggled and pulling an awkward suitcase behind me, was presumably not what the people on scooters usually saw on their exhausting-looking repeated circuits of the park. They seemed a little surprised. I just returned their smiles. The path twisted and split. I followed the route that led out of the park towards the river. Except. No, this was not the river. This was a canal. I walked a little further and passed a hotel, the gate padlockd shut.

Even further on was a sports centre and a crowd of footballing men. I seemed to be in a residential area miles from the centre of Prague. A brief moment of panic was followed by a pull yourself together! thought and then I went back into the park, heading for what was shown on the map as an area likely to have people I could ask for directions without interrupting the game.

As I continued down the path, curious glances came my way. Families out walking, cyclists enjoying the sunny weather, and me. With my scratchy old case. Then I saw the train tracks and I was sure I was nearly there. No evidence, but a train passed. It would stop soon and I'd come out of the trees, straight into the station. It was all going to be ok!

I saw another map, and went over to see whether the station was marked. No such luck. A couple on bikes went past, and exchanged surprised glances. They cycled up an incline and the man shouted out that they'd found the bridge. I looked behind me but he was definitely talking to me. In German. 'The bridge is over here.' he repeated. There's this one over the canal, and then another.' It barely seemed odd that a complete stranger had gone to the trouble of telling me there was a bridge, without even knowing where I was headed. I took it as a sign 'Uh, ok.' I said, 'um, thanks.'

I set off over the bridge, and it slowly registered that the train was going to leave in 45 minutes, I was in the middle of nowhere, on a bridge over a canal I didn't even know existed and if I didn't do something, I was going to miss my train.

A large family, made up of large mother, large father and extra large young daughter came my way. I approached the woman with my least threatening, most pitiable expression. I asked if she spoke English. She shot me a horrified look and shook her head violently. I tried Polish and her eyebrows raised ever so slightly. A little. I showed her the map, pointed at the name of the station and asked if it was far. He eyebrows were now right up by her hairline. 'Far! It's far!' she repeated. She told me to continue to the main road on the other side and that there'd be a bus. I thanked her and walked a little faster.

Almost at the main road, I decided two opinions were better than one and stopped a man, approaching me with his dog. 'The station! Oh, but that's this way,' he said pointing back in the direction I'd come. 'It's very close!' He took my bag and led me back down the hill. 'But this station?' I asked again, pointing at the ticket. 'Oh!' he said, his face darkening, 'but that's a different station.' A woman passed at this time and joined the discussion. 'You must take the bus! Up here!' she pointed back up the hill. It was ridiculous and I almost let out a burst of hysterical cackling, but managed to hold it in. The man shrugged, apologised, gave me back my bag and carried on his way. The woman took over. She chattered on in Czech, me getting the gist of every fifteenth word. I kept asking about how long it would take, conscious I had half an hour or so to get there. 'Forty minutes,' she said. Shit. I thanked her, she wished me luck and disappeared and I checked the timetable. The bus wouldn't arrive for another ten minutes. I needed a taxi. I rummaged in my bag and miraculously found the piece of paper the conference organisers had provided a taxi number on.

I called and squirmed inside as it rang and rang. A smooth voice told me I was first in the queue, in English. Good sign. When the operator picked up, the conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello? hello, do you speak English?
Her: Yes of course.
Me: Great, I need a taxi, urgently, I'm... oh shit where am I? I'm a bit lost and I've been walking around and I need to get my train. I'm in a bus stop. The, er, number 112. I think I'm near the zoo.
Her: [snorts of laughter] I need an address. Can you see the street name?
Me: No, there's no... wait, yes, it's Trojska. [triumphant] Trojska!
Her: [openly laughing at me now] OK, what is your name please?
Me: Becca
Her: OK, Mrs Becca you wait and taxi comes in ten minutes.
Me: But I need to catch a train, could you please ask them to hurry
Her: [still laughing] Ten minutes.

I stood by the roadside, forlorn and convinced it would be too late. A taxi sped past and I waved my arms like a madman, but he didn't stop. When the next came, I didn't even try to stop him, but he stopped anyway.

He leaned over from the driver's seat and asked, first in Czech, then in English, whether I needed a cab. 'But I just called one,' I said, checking the sign on the car, which didn't match that of the company I'd called. He shrugged. Seizing the opportunity, I showed him my train ticket. 'Can I make it?' I asked, the anxiety clear in my voice. He looked at his car clock. 'Ooh,' he said, shaking his head. 'I don't know. It's 21.02 and your train leaves at 21.24.' 'But is it possible?' I pleaded. 'I would say you must leave now,' he said. 'Right then, will you take me?' He laughed. 'Sure!' I got in, pulled the case in on top of me and he revved the engine. Then I remembered my wallet, empty of Czech Crowns but surprisingly padded with euros. 'How much will it cost?' I asked, as he worked his way through the gears. '200, 250 crowns.' 'Can I pay in euro?' 'Um, ok, ten euro.' 'I'll give you fifteen if you get me there.' He laughed again. I seemed to be amusing a lot of people.

We moved slickly through the traffic, onto overpasses, weaving past slower moving vehicles. He turned up the radio and the bass pumped in my ears, drowning out my heartbeat, which was thumping with the adrenaline. I kept my eye on the clock. Fifteen minutes until it leaves. Twelve. Nine. Suddenly we were there. I handed him the money, thanking him continuously for getting me there. Still laughing he wished me bon voyage and I ran to the departure board, to the platform and onto the train.

It was 21.22.

I stood in the corridor outside my compartment, leaning out of the window into the cool night air like the other passengers. I was grinning and sweaty and surprisingly muddy, but it was the best feeling in the world. I slept like a log.

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Monday, May 12, 2008


Dear tiny furious cycling man,

I just wanted to thank you for the insight you gave me when our paths crossed so briefly, but so memorably yesterday. Just two short words, but they conveyed so much. 

Mum had just discovered a puncture you see, and the reason I was swiveled round in my seat was to ask her whether she had enough change for the tram to get home. It's true I was on the wrong side of the cycle lane, and I can understand your reluctance to cross that strong white line, onto the wide empty path saved for pedestrians, surprisingly empty at that point. The better solution was surely to shout an indignant 'HEY!' as you approached us over the hill. Catching our attention like that was a smart move. It gave us a chance to admire your shiny cycling shorts and serious way of hunching over your racing bike's handlebars. It even allowed us a fairly good look at your screwed up anger, boiling up inside your shiny red face.

I duly steered over to the right, but that wasn't enough for you, was it? You had to rub it in, make my unforgiveable lack of adherence to road regulations really clear. Make it sting.

'Traum nicht!' 

That was paired with an impressively indignant hurrumph.

Traum nicht? Don't dream? Jesus, absolutely! Why would anybody dream. On a bike! I mean, it was Sunday, and the bicycle path by the river was full of weaving cyclists that all needed to be told not to dream. But you were right to pick me out, defiantly ignoring the rules and casting around for a way to wreak havoc on other cyclists. You, with your racing tyres and need for speed. I bet you weren't distracted by the sun shining off the river, making it sparkle and twinkle so invitingly it was all I could do not to jump right in. I bet the families of happy campers passed you by, the kids on unsteady rollers and speedy little scooters, parents walking contentedly hand in hand under the shade of the riverside trees. Perhaps you missed the old folk too, wheeled along by carers to they too could benefit from the glinting water. If only I could have been as concentrated as you, not led off track by other people, or events unfolding around me.

That was all insignificant to you, and so it should be. All these irritating people getting in the way. All those annoyances walking blithely into your path, taking their eyes off the purpose, the point of a bicycle ride, Sunday afternoon or not. Dreamers, the lot of them. Don't dream! Focus on the goals, stick to the paths so carefully drawn out for you, pump your legs up and down, up and down and race! Race! Race! 

Yours sincerely,


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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

wie bitte?

Marek dropped my hand and pushed open the door for me. I smiled at his Polish manners and walked into the half-full pub, loud groups of older Germans scattered about eating and drinking.

We chose an empty table near the back and helped ourselves to a menu. After a while, the waitress came over, apologising for having forgotten us and advising us to shout her over next time she abandoned us for too long. 'Dobrze,' I said loudly and instinctively. My hand shot to my mouth and I felt my cheeks burning. 'Um, gut, sehr gut,' I mumbled, catching the startled waitress' eye and hoping she'd think I was foreign rather than just plain weird. 

'Ein koelsch und ein hefeweizen bitte,' I annunciated clearly and slowly, checking each word was in the right language before I went on to the next. She smiled and went off to get our drinks.

Every conversation with the waitress after that was conducted with a serious expression and high levels of concentration. She clearly thought we were crazy foreign beings, with our staring eyes and yelps of success as the right vocabulary was located, but our approach worked. The meal was delicious - bratkartoffeln fried with just the right amount of onion and bacon; thick chunks of steak cooked to perfection and salads with that creamy herby dressing the Germans do so well. It all took me back to the last few years of school, when we'd been based in Bonn and I relied on my school-German to get me about and keep me and my friends supplied with beer and entertainment.

It still feels like home - familiar and comforting, with good old memories and plenty of freshly made new ones. The ordered systems of pfand and recycling are still pleasantly satisfying and the slow pace of life, where cycling along the river seems like the most natural way to pass a day is a welcome break from working life in Brussels. 

No matter how much like home it feels though, my automatic response to a question I haven't quite heard is still 'slucham?'

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Monday, May 05, 2008

in need of a break

You see I get it now, this Grown Up life with its proper jobs and responsibilities and organised entertainment. 

I understand that adult life is just an extension of childhood, except you perform social rituals with colleagues as well as friends, you learn the rules and choose to follow them or break them depending on the kind of person you are. You make mistakes and learn how to be accepted. You fulfill your tasks and get some kind of pleasure from Doing Your Job Well. I can see that. I understand how it works.

Can I get off now?

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